This delightful book, Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, focuses mostly on Austen’s early years in Steventon (1775-1801). The first four chapters explain the influence that being in a parson’s family had on her life, attitudes, and novels. Some fascinating details related to the church are included. For example:
- Patrons: Church livings were usually given by the major landowner of the parish, like Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. This patron might upgrade the parsonage (the clergyman’s house), making it bigger and nicer, to attract a better quality, higher class parson—to give the landowner a friend to socialize with. Unfortunately, although Jane’s father’s patron was a relative, he did not live in the parish of Steventon and had no interest in making their parsonage nicer; her father had to pay for the improvements needed himself.
- Neighbours: Austen’s books are full of visits to neighbours and obligations to neighbours. These were based on the biblical idea that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.
- Reason: Newton’s explanation of gravity over a century earlier showed that the world was governed by reasonable laws. People believed that most aspects of the Christian faith could also be discovered by using reason, and arguments from newly-developing sciences were used to defend the Scriptures.
- Singing: The church services Jane attended in Steventon probably included no singing. Hymns were not yet popular in rural Anglican churches. The Psalms were recited as responses to the church clerk, who read them out line by line for illiterate members of the congregation.
Later chapters focus on areas such as education, drama, dancing, book publishing, marriage and money, and even war. These include less on faith. Collins says the etiquette of the ballroom, though, was considered one facet of “moral behavior” which girls had to learn!
- War and the Clergy: During twenty years of Jane’s life, Britain was at war with France, though Austen barely mentions it in her novels. The clergy were considered a major force in that war, along with the military. They led the people in prayers, fast days, and days of thanksgiving as part of the war effort. Patriotism was justified because England was religious and Protestant, and its upper class was believed to be “more moral, more caring, and more mindful of the community than their counterparts in France” (p. 124). Ministers were discouraged from becoming soldiers, except in dire need, because their very important job was “to keep the nation strong in faith” (p.198). George Austen, Jane’s father, had to provide the government with a list of all able-bodied men in his parish who could fight, as well as other resources available. He was able to report the highest proportion of any parish in rural Hampshire: 35 out of a population of 153!
The final chapter summarizes Austen’s life after leaving Steventon, and reminds us again that Jane Austen greatly valued her religion, and that it influenced her novels greatly, though not always obviously. A fascinating book, with many insights into Austen and her world of faith. Highly recommended.